More on Six-Minute Service in New York

Two years ago I wrote about how New York should aim to run every bus and subway service every six minutes off-peak. Buses would require a combination of aggressive bus redesign and speedup treatments for this to be viable. The subway already has very low variable operating costs off-peak and such a boost in frequency would naturally increase efficiency; New York City Transit gets around 550 service-hours annually per train driver, whereas the Berlin U-Bahn with its flat all-day schedule gets around 900. But now, the more mainstream New York-area transit advocacy group Riders’ Alliance has its own proposal for six-minute service, which it has aggressive marketed using the hashtag #6minuteservice.

This is a good campaign and I hope more people in the region take notice and push for it until the state implements it in full. The impact on passenger convenience is massive, not just in the form of shorter waits but also higher reliability coming from better timetabling, and hopefully also slightly more speed coming from said higher reliability. The proposal says that it would take $250 million a year in extra spending to effect this system, and it’s unknown but plausible that it would increase ridership by enough to defray this cost entirely, even without any efficiency treatments to reduce unit costs.

What’s in the Riders’ Alliance proposal?

Between 5 am and 9 pm on weekdays, and between 8 am and 10 pm on weekends, all subway routes and the top 100 bus routes in the city should run at worst every six minutes. This echoes a report by the comptroller’s office from last year, recommending this as an alternative to rush hour-focused service by bringing up corona-related ridership decreases.

It’s not stated but I think the subway routes in question are reckoned by letter or number, which means the A train runs every six minutes but each of its two branches runs every 12. This is fine – the two branches of the A are exceptionally far out, which is why a single service splits to them, where elsewhere in New York each branch gets its own number or letter.

The implications for timetabling

Timetabling a consistent all-day service is much easier than timetabling bespoke service patterns. The Riders’ Alliance proposal aims to face the general public rather than planners and therefore omits this benefit, but this benefit reaches passengers as well, in non-obvious ways.

First, if all trains and buses run every six minutes, then it’s possible to set up clockface timetables. These don’t matter very much if they run every six minutes, but they do if they run every 12, as I expect the two A branches to. The same is true of buses that branch: some outer ends may run every 12 minutes, in which case they can and should run on repeating clockface timetables that passengers can memorize. Passengers who can remember “my bus leaves at :01, :13, :25, :37, and :49” without having to consult timetables or trip planners all the time are likelier to take the trip; this was my commute for a year in Vancouver.

The A train today runs every 15 minutes on each branch but it’s not on a consistent clockface schedule, which depresses ridership. In effect, current practice is little different from what Swiss planners warn of: they say the best way to reduce ridership is to run service every 11, 13, or 17 minutes, rather than every 12 or 15 on a clockface pattern.

Second, if all trains run on the same frequency, then service planning on a complexly interlined system like New York’s becomes more tractable. Today, every train runs on a separate frequency, often different from the services it shares track with. The 2 and 3 trains share track most of the way, from Franklin Avenue to 135th Street, but the 2 is just a little more frequent, resulting in the following northbound timetable at Franklin:

10:03: 2
10:07: 3
10:12: 2
10:15: 3
10:21: 2
10:28: 3
10:32: 2
10:34: 3
10:37: 2
10:41: 3
10:43: 2
10:49: 2
10:51: 3
10:57: 3
11:01: 2
11:03: 3
11:09: 2
11:15: 3
11:17: 2
11:22: 3
11:24: 2
11:28: 3

This is irregular both on the trunk and on each individual service – the 2 on average runs every eight minutes but has a 12-minute gap, and the 3 runs on average every nine but also has a 12-minute gap. It’s an unavoidable consequence of the combination of extensive reverse-branching and subway frequency guidelines that run different services at different headways. The six-minute service proposal straightens this by aligning the trains to a single frequency, with regular alternation between successive trains on trunks.

And third, another benefit of a regular frequency to planning is that schedule planners can reliably avoid merge conflicts. This, in turn, speeds up service, which is full of planned delays and schedule padding at pain points. It’s not a full substitute for deinterlining, which would eliminate the merge conflicts at the worst junctions, but it makes it viable to no longer write impossible schedules with the planning department that New York City Transit has.

Service quality and demographics

Both Riders’ Alliance and the comptroller report it uses as its source point out demographic differences between peak and off-peak riders: rush hour subway commuters have a median income of $50,783 a year, even higher (slightly) than drivers, but off-peak subway commuters have a median income of $37,048 and bus commuters have a median income of $30,374.

In both reports this is taken to be indicative that off-peak service is mostly for poorer people, but it’s not the right analysis. The picture that emerges from the data is not that in general rush hour commuters outearn off-peak commuters; for one, most off-peak commutes are done by car, not by public transportation. Rather, what’s going on is that off-peak public transit quality is bad and this suppresses ridership among those who can afford a car.

By the same token, we can look at the incomes of commuters in regions of the United States that have no public transit to speak of – maybe some buses or even a few trains but with rounding-error ridership and low single-digit modal split. In metro New York, public transit and car commuters have about the same median income, and in some secondary transit cities like Chicago public transit commuters actually outearn drivers, since service to non-CBD destinations is so bad it suppresses ridership below median income more than above it. But in places like Los Angeles, the median income of transit commuters is not much more than half that of car commuters, because service quality is so bad that anyone who can afford to drive does.

The upshot of this is that better off-peak transit service is going to increase the average income of off-peak transit users, by attracting people who currently drive. This is also going to lead to higher-socioeconomic status shifts: higher levels of degree attainment, a larger proportion of white riders, a larger proportion of native-born riders.

I bring this up because a rise in the relative average income of users as service quality improves means the improvement is working as intended. It doesn’t mean the subway is gentrifying or turns away poorer riders, it just means it no longer repels riders who can afford to drive. This is important, because too much American transit planning is based on market segmentation in which service is supposed to be for a specific class of rider, and if the demographics are changing it means it’s being revamped for a different class. In reality, there’s just one transit system for one city and income differences are indicative of quality differences and not of inherent differences in the travel market.

How much does this cost? What is the ridership impact?

The Riders’ Alliance proposal says the additional cost of the program is $250 million a year in operating expenses. In 2019, NYCT spent $8.8 billion on operations and got $4.6 billion in fares, so this is in theory a 6% increase in subsidy, and in practice a little less as better service attracts more fare-paying riders. This is without any concurrent attempts to use the increase in service to increase efficiency (read: reduce unit staffing levels) and, I think, without bus speedups that permit much higher frequency for the same cost.

It’s unclear what the revenue impact should be; the ridership impact can be estimated from longstanding results in the literature about ridership-frequency elasticity, which in the case of NYCT should be about 0.4. The proposal increases off-peak service on the subway by around 50% in principle and a bit more in practice because of the reduced variability in frequency, say two-thirds: most lines are to go from 10- to six-minute headways and the rest, which are mostly more frequent than this, get a smaller increase that we round up to two-thirds by taking the impact of higher reliability into account. This means an increase in off-peak ridership of around 23%. The bus impact is even larger – in Brooklyn the median bus headway is right between 12 and 15 minutes, and even taking into account that the busiest buses do much better, this is close to a doubling of the effective frequency.

In turn, most ridership is off-peak. In 2019, peak (7-10 am) ridership into the Manhattan core was 923,000 per weekday, amounting to 44% of ridership entering the Manhattan core on a weekday, or around 33% of all inbound weekday ridership and 27% of all ridership. Even adding a bit to account for peak ridership that doesn’t enter Manhattan, only about a third of subway ridership in New York was at the peak before corona; the peak share has fallen since, but is slowly creeping back up as workers slowly return to the office. Raising two-thirds of ridership by 23% is massive – it’s a 15% systemwide increase for a much smaller increase in operating costs, and a somewhat larger increase in bus ridership to boot.

Unfortunately, I can’t turn this into a revenue impact estimate. While the demographics in the section above specify off-peak commuters, the studies that my ridership estimate is based on measure riders, including peak commuters who ride more often for non-work trips. Such riders already have monthly passes, so making it easier for them to ride is excellent for the city’s long-term health but doesn’t defray the added cost. Converted riders who are not already on the system as well as the odd peak rider who doesn’t already have a pass do generate more revenue, but I don’t know how many there are; these need to be a little more than a third of the overall increase in ridership to fully defray costs, which sounds plausible to me.

7 comments

  1. Tiercelet

    To be clear, would this proposal mean decreased peak service levels? Consistent all-day service is good, but at least for my own case I think I’d see unacceptable crowding at 10 TPH peak.

    Anyway, it’s not automatic that current peak commuters will have monthly passes–MTA has calibrated the fares so tightly that monthly only beats pay-per-ride after 47 trips in 30 days. With 8 weekend days, a five-day commuter needs 22 commute round trips and 3 non-commute rides per month to break even. But last month’s survey data suggests only about 10% of NYC office workers are actually in office five days weekly, so probably the majority of peak commuters are still saving money on pay-per-ride.

    • Alon Levy

      They’re not asking for cuts in peak service; I expect that cuts will happen if long-term ridership shortfalls persist but not otherwise, since peak trains are pretty crowded, if less than before.

      And yes, you’re right that current peak commuters may not have passes – they only do if they already use the system off-peak to some extent, but if they’re strictly peak-only then they don’t. That’s why I think it’s plausible to get a 6% revenue boost from a 15% ridership boost.

  2. Chaz

    Would this mean route consolidation for buses? Deleting certain lower ridership routes to concentrate service on the main roads.

  3. Low Headways

    This would be very very good but would it be feasible with the current state of signal failures/service disruptions/etc.? It seems like delays might cascade less but that it might also be harder to run recovery at a sufficient pace (obviously in a well-run system these are non-issues but today…)

  4. Robert Kozma

    Six minutes headways across the board are, in theory, fine. But the NYCTA regularly “thins out” scheduled service for midday and weekend track work. I know. I worked at NYCTA for 37 years, many years in the Schedule Dept. The 6 minutes would rarely actually run, certainly not on the branches beyond the multi-lined trunks.

    • Alon Levy

      The trackwork efficiency in New York is so low I’m disinclined to take any current practice as evidence of what is and isn’t possible.

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